Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Frankie Laine: An American Dreamer (JFM International Productions, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a quirky documentary called Frankie Laine: An American Dreamer on the Cox Cable’s own channel, Channel 4. This is a cut-down (to about 45 minutes, less commercials) version of a 90-minute documentary produced and directed by Jimmy Marino (who also did the interviews) and Don Wilson, written by Leslie Wilson, luckily produced while Frankie Laine was still alive and available to be interviewed (though many of the clips show him on various TV shows — still, this came out in 2006, a year before Laine’s death in San Diego at age 93), and the editing showed occasionally; for example, Laine talks about doing intermission work at Billy Berg’s nightclub in Los Angeles in 1946 and then “after Slim left” he was promoted to headliner — leaving the non-cognoscenti totally ignorant about who “Slim” was. He was Slim Gaillard, the African-American jive performer who did novelty songs like “Flat Foot Floogie,” “Cement Mixer (Put-ti, Put-ti)” and “Popity Pop (Go the Motorcycle),” titles which give a good account of his act (though he always hired good musicians; one 1945 date includes Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Jack McVea and Zutty Singleton!). According to the listing for the 90-minute version on, Gaillard was actually shown in the film (I remember seeing him as a guest on the Flip Wilson variety TV show in the early 1970’s — Wilson was always interested in showcasing fellow African-Americans who hadn’t had much TV exposure, including one marvelous night when he had the Modern Jazz Quartet on), as were Louis Armstrong (whom Laine relied on quite a lot for material — his first album, Frankie Laine Sings!, recorded for Mercury in 1947, contained six songs, all of which Armstrong had recorded in the early 1930’s), guitarist Mundell Lowe and other important figures in Laine’s life, either as influences or collaborators.

Some things I didn’t know about Laine until I watched this show was that, like his contemporary and (first-)namesake Frank Sinatra, he was of Sicilian ancestry (I did know his real last name was “Lo Vecchio,” a weird moniker because it literally means “The Old One” in Italian); he was a champion marathon dancer before a sprained ankle led him to switch to a more contemporary and less strenuous sort of career (in fact, the show claims he still holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the longest continuous marathon dance performance — during one dance from hell in which the promoter decided to award the prize in a sadistic fashion that makes the dance described in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? look like a New Age touchy-feely exercise by comparison: the people were told that they had to continue dancing nonstop, without the usual breaks, and wouldn’t be allowed food, drink, or bathroom breaks, and Laine won when the other male contestant wet his pants, thereby disqualifying himself and bringing the ordeal, which should have been forbidden by the Geneva Conventions, to an end); and he got his stage name from WINS radio in New York when he auditioned there and won a job as a radio singer. The station manager said “Lo Vecchio” wouldn’t do for a name and wanted to call him “Frankie Lang.” Laine thought he would be confused with the great jazz guitarist and Bing Crosby accompanist Eddie Lang (who’d actually died two years before this happened; Lang died in 1933 of a botched tonsillectomy and Laine got his radio job in 1935), and offered “Lane” as a last name instead. Then Laine got worried that he might be confused with Frances Lane, another singer on the station, and each might get the other’s fan mail (“Fan mail? I hadn’t even started yet and I was already worried about fan mail!,” the older Laine joked about his younger self), so he added the “i” to his new name.

The show also goes over much the same ground as the interview he did with George Simon for Metronome in the early 1950’s — which describes his early years as a singer in singularly miserable terms: he kept showing up at benefits and club dates asking if he could be put on to sing a number or two, and he kept being told no — in one benefit he was put off until the very end, when he was promised a song just before the concert was over, only Roy Eldridge went into his spectacular extended version of “Body and Soul” and no one was going to ask him to cut it short to put on an unknown singer to a jazz audience. Laine finally broke through when he hired a new manager, Sam Lutz, who got him a job singing at Billy Berg’s nightclub even though Berg’s initial response was, “Why should I pay him? He already sings here all the time for free!” While there he got presented with the song “That’s My Desire” and decided to announce it as “a new song” even though it had been written in 1931 (by Irving Berlin’s musical secretary, Helmy Kresa — that’s right, the world’s most popular and successful songwriter couldn’t actually write music and needed someone to take down his songs in notation, and Berlin hired Kresa after he decided the first person he auditioned for the job, George Gershwin, was overqualified and should be writing songs of his own instead of taking down Berlin’s) and had just been recorded in Laine’s then-home town, Los Angeles, for the Modern Records label by Black singer-pianist Hadda Brooks. (Laine never acknowledged Brooks for reviving “That’s My Desire” and thereby putting the old song back on the musical map, but it’s hard to believe someone with as much of an ear for Black music as Laine’s — he always named Bessie Smith as the biggest influence on his style and one can hear much more of Smith in him than one can in Billie Holiday! — hadn’t heard Brooks’ recording, especially since he was living in the same city as she.) Laine signed with the young, hungry Mercury label and “That’s My Desire” was his first record and his career-establishing hit, and he followed it up with a cover of Claude Thornhill’s “A Sunday Kind of Love” (Laine’s vocal is hardly as mellow as Fran Warren’s on the Thornhill version, but his record is still beautiful), and his records not only sold well to white audiences but dominated what were euphemistically called the “Harlem Hit Parades” until his manager unwittingly let slip to a jukebox operator whose clients were in the Black communities that Laine was white — whereupon all his records disappeared from the “Harlem Hit Parades” overnight.

The rest of the show’s account of Laine’s career was familiar — though it also covered his brief career as a songwriter (he placed “It Only Happens Once” with Nat “King” Cole — who’d had one of the biggest hits of his career with another song written by a singer, Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song,” and though the magic didn’t strike twice “It Only Happens Once” is a hauntingly beautiful song in both Laine’s and Cole’s versions — and “We’ll Be Together Again” is a great song that was buried as the flip side of Laine’s record of “Shine,” one of his audition pieces for WINS, and didn’t really become a standard until Frank Sinatra revived it on the Songs for Swinging Lovers album in 1956; this show has a marvelous montage of various high-powered singers, including Holiday, Sinatra, Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, doing “We’ll Be Together Again”) — including his meeting with Mitch Miller at Mercury, their spectacularly successful collaborations on “That Lucky Old Sun,” “Mule Train” and “Cry of the Wild Goose” (Miller was actually interviewed for this show but, alas, was not asked about the long-standing rumor that he himself supplied the famous bullwhip sound effects on “Mule Train”) and Miller’s decamping to Columbia Records in 1950 — Miller had told Laine that he would sign him to Columbia if he chose not to renew his Mercury contract when it expired, and Laine stashed away a song he’d been presented called “Jezebel” and didn’t tell anyone at Mercury it existed, so it could be his first Columbia release.

“Jezebel” is one of Laine’s finest records, featuring some spectacular register shifts that clearly influenced Elvis Presley (and Elvis wasn’t the only white rocker from the 1950’s Laine influenced: Buddy Holly actually covered “That’s My Desire”!), and though Miller’s influence on his career moved him away from his jazz roots and towards a more dramatic, emphatic style that might be considered overwrought and corny, it also moved a lot of records then and holds up surprisingly well. Laine was one of the key figures in the prehistory of rock ’n’ roll: he emerged as a star the year after the release of The Jolson Story, which led young record buyers tired of the “crooning” style of Crosby, Como and Sinatra to a ballsier, more intense “belting” style of singing with direct roots in African-American music, and between them Jolson and Laine pretty much killed the “crooning” style for young, upcoming white pop singers (though Tony Bennett managed to launch his career around this time with a style midway between the crooners and the belters) and blazed the trail for the early white rock ’n’ rollers. (They also briefly killed Frank Sinatra’s career until Sinatra decided that if he couldn’t beat them, he’d join them; aided by Nelson Riddle’s powerhouse arrangements, Sinatra showed on his Capitol records that he could belt with the best of them, and his tumultuous relationship with Ava Gardner and the aftermath of its end made Sinatra’s ballads less prayerful and more emotionally wrenching than they’d ever been before.)

The show demonstrated Laine’s success doing theme songs for Western movies and TV shows — Clint Eastwood was one of the interviewees because of the Laine-Eastwood connection via the TV show Rawhide (Laine recorded the theme song and Eastwood was one of the stars — though he was actually billed second to the now nearly-forgotten Eric Fleming; when Sergio Leone wanted an American star for his “spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Dollars he initially offered it to Fleming, then gave the part to Eastwood when Fleming turned it down … and the rest, as they say, is history) — and though Tex Ritter actually sang the theme song for the film High Noon on the actual soundtrack (and, to my mind, did it better than Laine: Ritter’s quiet, matter-of-fact understatement sounds far more ominous and appropriate than Laine’s strained, almost operatic belting) Laine got the nod for quite a few other Western film soundtracks, including Man Without a Star and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as well as the one that reinvigorated his career after it went into the doldrums in the 1960’s: Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ outrageous Western spoof for which, as part of the joke, Brooks wanted a big, stentorian theme song just like a big-budget 1950’s Western and wanted Laine to sing it. The show was rather breathless in covering the last few decades of Laine’s career — there’s an interesting clip of Patti Page saying that both she and Laine kept their audiences in Britain and elsewhere in Europe even once they were largely forgotten in the U.S. because fans there are much more loyal and don’t stop liking their favorites and replace them with newer performers the way American audiences tend to — but overall Frankie Laine: An American Dreamer was a nice, if rather tackily edited (I’d love to see the long version sometime!), documentary about a very interesting and unique singer who may not have achieved the lasting superstardom of Crosby or Sinatra but nonetheless made his mark on American popular music.